Prelude to memory

The nineteen years Lera Auerbach has spent in the United States have left her English with only a hint of a Russian accent. Yet last Friday night, she keyed into her Slavic heritage by interpreting a selection of Dmitri Shostakovich’s works. Playing in Mandel Hall, Auerbach and Chicago-born cellist Ani Aznavoorian performed Auerbach’s arrangements of Shostakovich’s “Cello Sonata in D Minor,” and ten of the “24 Preludes.”

Every now and then, a concert can serve as a reminder of why music needs to be experienced in person, not merely as recordings relegated to the deep crevice of an iPod’s hard drive. Friday’s concert was one of those reminders. Auerbach introduced the preludes as a “light-hearted” affair, and the chuckles bouncing around the hall between songs kept up the easygoing tone. The audience responded emotionally to the music, and so did the musicians–the smiles that often flashed back and forth between Auerbach and Aznavoorian conveyed a conviction and joy in the creation of music that only a live performance can communicate.

The show in Mandel Hall was part of the “Soviet Arts Experience,” a 16-month series promoting various forms of artistic interpretation from the Soviet Union or in response to it. Largely coordinated by the University of Chicago Presents, the series incorporates 26 institutions from across the city.

Friday’s performance certainly showed that art in the context of the Soviet Union is not necessarily as downtrodden as American audiences might imagine. While Shostakovich is arguably the most famous artist of the Russian music canon, Auerbach has proven herself to be the preeminent heir to his legacy. Published by the same company as Shostakovich, the Sikorski Music Publishers, her emotional and variegated style has reached audiences across the world. In a 2008 interview with the quarterly magazine of the Dresden Philharmonic, she expressed her concern that her music “reach the listener and connect to his soul in the most individual way.”

Auerbach made this connection with the lives of her listeners explicit in the closing performances of her own “24 Preludes for Cello and Piano.” Sitting down to the piano after the intermission and adjusting her position on the seat, Auerbach issued this challenge to the audience: “Think about your own life, your own memories… After all, we are our own memories.” (Isaac Daalke)